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The state Legislature on Tuesday wiped out the public’s right to vote up or down on specific zoning changes in Key Biscayne and other communities. The bill is headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign it.

Only a few communities are like Key Biscayne and have charter provisions that require voter approval of zoning changes. Now, that power will be restored to the governing bodies – councils, commissions – of municipalities. 

Rep. Vicki Lopez, who represents Key Biscayne, supported the measure. It passed 91-26, with most of the opposition coming from Democrats.

“You should not govern by referendum,” Lopez said before the vote. “You should throw them out” if voters disapprove of a zoning decision made by their elected representatives, she added. 

The new law should make Building, Planning and Zoning Director Jeremy Gauger’s job easier – no longer does a minor park rezoning have to go before Village voters. But he didn’t see it that way.

“I think any preemption (by the state) is terrible,” he said. “The voters were really clear about this in November.”

Key Biscayne’s restrictive charter provision, known as Section 4.15, was added by voters in 2007 after a controversial development process surrounding the demolition of the old Sonesta Hotel. The Oceana Condominium now stands on that lot. 

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In March, voters in Pinecrest rejected a similar provision that would have required a public vote for zoning amendments. It failed, 63% to 37%. 

Key Biscayne Village Attorney Chad Friedman said he is still reviewing the effects, but other attorneys familiar with the legislation said the provision would upend the current zoning process  — and some said they approved of the Legislature’s action. 

“A broken clock is right twice a day,” said Jennifer Stearns Buttrick, a former member of the Village’s Charter Revision Commission.

An electronic screen in the Florida House indicating passage of SB 718, which removes the ability of communities to require zoning changes by referendum (Florida Channel)

Zoning regulations can be very complex and are poorly suited subjects for referendums, but should be left to local lawmakers who can study, debate, and revise zoning ordinances, she said. “This does not take away local control. It just reverts it to local elected leaders,” she said. 

Luis de la Cruz, a former council member and member of the Strategic Vision Board, agreed that SB 718 would upend the way zoning matters are decided. 

“I believe it’s going to be very impactful – and it’s unfortunate,” de la Cruz said. “There are some things like density and commercial intensity that residents feel extremely strongly about.” 

The update to the island’s Strategic Vision Plan faces a vote by the Village Council on May 9, and de la Cruz has been vocal in defending the non-binding document as a way to limit density while also planning for sea level rise, traffic, and other issues facing the village. The plan calls on the council to make zoning changes, which now could be streamlined without the referendum process. 

The Strategic Vision Plan has become a lightning rod for criticism by a certain conservative faction on the island who say it will lead to overdevelopment. Yet, that plan remains only advisory while the bill passed Thursday could have direct consequences on the development they fear. 

Indeed, had the charter amendment passed in November, it would have been easier to fight zoning changes because a change would have required a supermajority. If SB 718 is signed into law, it could mean that a bare majority of council members could pass a change. 

But Lopez, who said she has studied the Village’s Vision Plan, said islanders have little to fear.  She said critics have not presented any evidence of a threat of overdevelopment on the island. 

“I don’t see any changes on the horizon that gave me any concern. And I hope the residents will gather together and look at the evidence. I’m a data person,” she said.  

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Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.

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Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow...